December 11, 2007

Book review: "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers," by Xiaolu Guo

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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
By Xiaolu Guo
Nan A. Talese / ISBN: 978-0-385-52029-4

So first, a confession from my personal life that is relevant to today's essay; that like many others, I too once fell in love with someone while on a foreign trip, in many ways precisely because it was a foreign country and she was a foreigner within that country. And like many others, it wasn't just simple lust that made me fall in love with this person so intensely in such a short period, nor just a shared set of opinions and tastes; it was that I was feeling so scared and confused and alone in that foreign country, not able to even begin expressing myself adequately there about the emotions I was having, with this good-looking woman suddenly there and seemingly understanding everything I was going through without me ever having to say anything. In the middle of a very stressful international trip, she became a life preserver that I threw myself at, a small moment of calm in an unending storm that had been happening for nearly a month at the point I met her. And this of course is why the woman was ultimately not interested in a romance with me, because she understood where these emotions of mine were coming from, that for me it was all about the experience and little to do with her in particular; and she knew this of course because she had done some international traveling herself in the past, and had had the exact same experience that I was going through, but in her case did end up getting romantically involved with the person in question, which of course ended in disaster a few months later, such a surety that you didn't even really need me to mention it.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo

Like I said, it's a well-known story from the world of international travel, a situation that is tackled once again in the extremely delightful new novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, the first English-language book by Chinese-British author Xiaolu Guo, one that was short-listed for this year's Orange Prize and has gone on to become a surprise commercial hit. Based on Guo's own experiences when first moving to London at the turn of the millennium, the novel uses a personal-journal format to track the first year of a new immigrant, using only the words that immigrant knows at any given moment; it's a literary trick that could've been awfully gimmicky if flubbed, but here Guo uses it to profoundly comment on Western culture from the eyes of an Easterner, to use the difficulty of a new language to metaphorically examine the entire society that uses the language. It is a book simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly sad, a story that will strike a lot of powerful (and sometimes painful) chords among anyone who has done any amount of international traveling themselves; one of those books that makes you want to run out and buy a bunch of copies, so that you can slap them into friends' hands and yell, "See, this is why I go to all the trouble that I do so that I can travel. Read this and you'll finally get it." Oh, and did I mention that it's really freakin' dirty too? It's really freakin' dirty too, not in a shockingly pornographic way (as are many of the sexual projects that get reviewed here), but rather in a delightful and highly erotic way, with Guo again using the quirky details of the English language to get across some highly symbolic (and temperature-raising) mental images.

Like many travel stories, the actual plotline of Dictionary is a fairly simple one; it's the story of 23-year-old Chinese peasant girl Zhuang, whose factory-owning blue-collar parents send her to London for a year, in order to learn English "as the English speak it" and thus improve her chances of a well-paying job in this global age we're moving into these days. And, I mean, that's pretty much it as far as the actual storyline is concerned -- "Z," as she's known by most of her Western acquaintances, does end up moving to London for a year, keeps a journal about her school and life experiences while there, meets and dates and breaks up with a guy, then at the end of a year goes back home. Er, the end. What the novel really becomes about, then, is not so much the events that transpire but an examination of the people these events are happening to; a detailed look at the people involved, in fact, using the infinitely fascinating and international milieu of London in order to look at the lives of a few of its random citizens, with Guo playing against character expectations as much as humanly possible.

Because that's an important thing to know about Dictionary, and a big reason why the novel is so delightful in the first place, is that Z is in no way your typical meek Chinese peasant girl; she is an opinionated loudmouth, as a matter of fact, a bit of an a--hole as well, unusually aggressive in situations that fascinate her and ready to embrace this cosmopolitan urban environment she suddenly finds herself in, a money-focused realist who goes out of her way at cocktail parties to defend communism. This is an interesting enough play against type, of course, but then becomes even more so when examining the Welsh guy she ends up getting involved with, who in many ways is her opposite: a bisexual, globetrotting, radically liberal ex-hippie twenty years her senior, a lover of both farming and the countryside who hasn't dated a woman in years and years. Now add Z's misunderstanding at the beginning of their relationship, where she mistakes an invitation to come over one night for an invitation to move in; and then add the man's unwillingness to correct the mistake; and now you have yourself one engaging little love story indeed.

So why do the two end up getting so heavily involved? Well, for the reasons I mentioned at the beginning of today's review -- because of common traveling experiences bonding them in a temporary way, while a lack of a common language fluency hindering their ability to see how ideologically different they actually are. It's a unique aspect of international romances, this lack of a common fluent language besides the "unspoken one of love," something that makes the entire endeavor both thrillingly exotic and almost guaranteed to be doomed for failure; it's the fuel by which movies like Before Sunrise drive their story engines, the fantasy that inspires thousands of undergraduate backpacking trips across Europe every summer. And indeed, under Guo's masterful hands as an English-language writer (and seriously, she is so deft with the English language here that you can easily mistake her for a UK native), it's this exact fantasy that drives the relationship of Z and her lover for its first six months or so, and is the impetus behind so much of Z's glee and pathos during her "year in the West."

But alas, such relationships can never sustain themselves for very long, not once the people involved start getting a deeper understanding of this lover they've been seeing; and in Dictionary Guo charts the unmaking of this relationship just so brilliantly, by timing it with Z's growing understanding of "English as the English speak it," watching her not only come to all these new complex realizations about her lover but also be able to express them in a more sophisticated way with each passing day. Make no mistake, Guo pulls no punches here; the story can get quite dark at certain points, and certainly does a devastating job at expressing the deep loneliness and alienation that immigrants can sometimes experience (especially on bad days). It's a very real book, I guess I'm saying; one that paints such a deep portrait of some very complex characters that you'll swear by the end that they must actually exist, that if you were to ever go to London you might have a shot of actually running into them on the street there.

And then finally, like I mentioned, this book is a surprisingly erotic one as well, definitely not its main point but a nice little unexpected bonus nonetheless; and as mentioned, the eroticism in Dictionary is not a dysfunctional, in-your-face kind as often featured here at CCLaP, but rather a flowery and nerdy kind (which I mean in a good way), which much like the rest of the novel depends on an expert skill over language and cleverness to be as effective as it is. It's one of those stories that titillates, not overwhelms; a book that helps clueless men understand the complex and emotionally weighted way so many women approach the subject of sexuality in the first place. I hesitate to use the term "chick-lit," because it's just such a loaded term that so many people find so disagreeable; but I will say this, that this is a good book to buy your friend who's into all those horrible chick-lit novels, as a way of getting her to read more intelligent stuff that will still naturally appeal to her. Can I say that without anyone getting angry or offended? We'll see, I guess.

To tell you the truth, there is barely anything in Dictionary that I myself would change, and the only reason it didn't get a larger score than it did is because of it essentially being a niche publication; that if you're not naturally a fan of delicate love stories with international travel at their core, you're likely to find this novel tedious to the point of tears, and will be tempted to throw it back on the "Books Destined to Be Made Into Cheap Looking Cable Television Movies That Your Mom Inexplicably Freaking Loves" shelf, where it rightly belongs. You definitely have to be of a certain type to enjoy this book; if like me, though, you are of this type, you're bound to love Dictionary from its very first page to its very last.

Out of 10:
Story: 7.3
Characters: 9.9
Style: 8.5
Overall: 8.8, or 9.8 for fans of delicate love stories

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:04 PM, December 11, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |